Great Smoky Mountains: America's Most Popular National Park

13 May, 2016

Today we visit a national park that stretches across two southern U.S. states -- Tennessee and North Carolina -- and two mountain ranges -- the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian. The area is known for its wildflowers, autumn colors, waterfalls, and black bears.

A boy plays at the bottom of Spruce Flats Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A boy plays at the bottom of Spruce Flats Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It is also known for the blue-colored mist that hangs above mountain peaks and valleys. It looks like smoke, and gave the area its name. Today, we are exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We are hardly alone on our journey. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets more visitors than any other.

Starting in the 1920s, local citizens began working to protect the land. Ann Davis moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915. She soon came to love the Great Smoky Mountains. In 1923, Davis visited some of the national parks in the western United States. She proposed creation of a national park to protect the Smokies after she returned home.

Ann Davis entered politics to help push the idea. In 1925, she became first female from her county to serve in the Tennessee State House of Representatives. She proposed a bill to permit the purchase of more than 30,000 hectares of land from the Little River Lumber Company. That was the first huge purchase of land used to create the national park.

In 1934, Tennessee and North Carolina gave the federal government more than 300,000 hectares of land for the park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established on June 15, 1934.

But, the official dedication did not take place until 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at a ceremony within the national park. The ceremony took place at the Rockefeller Monument, on the border between the two states that provided the land.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is dedicating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Newfound Gap, N.C.-Tennessee, on Sep. 2, 1940.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is dedicating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Newfound Gap, N.C.-Tennessee, on Sep. 2, 1940.

Roosevelt said that day, "It is good and right that we should conserve these mountain heights of the old frontier for the benefit of the American people."

Visiting the Park

Most years, around 9 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It is the largest area of protected land east of the Rocky Mountains. And, it is one of the few national parks that is free to enter.

The park has over 1,000 kilometers of trails. More than 110 kilometers of the world-famous Appalachian Trail cuts through the Smokies. So, you might share the trail with a hiker in the middle of a months-long hike from Georgia all the way north to Maine.

Visitors also share the park with a large population of black bears.

A black bear cub climbs a tree
A black bear cub climbs a tree

The park is one of the biggest protected areas in the eastern U.S. where wild black bears live. Black bears once roamed a huge part of North America. But the populations suffered because of habitat loss.

Scientists say around 1,500 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park officials work hard to protect them, and warn visitors not to get close to bears or leave behind trash that would harm the bears.

Many visitors come to the park to view wildlife. One of the most popular places to do so is in an area called Cades Cove. Here, visitors can see white-tailed deer, the dog-like coyote, turkeys, and yes, black bears.

Cades Cove is a valley. It has a long and rich history. The Cherokee Indians used to hunt there. The first European settlers arrived in the early 1800s. In the 1830s, around 270 people lived in Cades Cove. Today, many kinds of historic buildings and structures remain in the valley, including log houses, barns, churches and a working mill.

The John Oliver Cabin at Cades Cove
The John Oliver Cabin at Cades Cove

Cades Cove is also an excellent place to view wildflowers. The park is famous for its wildflower diversity. Within the park are more than 1,500 kinds of flowers, more than any other national park in the country.

Another famous spot in the Great Smoky Mountains is Clingmans Dome. It is the highest point within the park. At the top of the 2,024-meter-tall mountain is an observation tower. It offers viewers a 360-degree view of the Smokies and surrounding areas.

Unfortunately, the park has faced air pollution problems. The pollution harms the views atop Clingmans Dome and other scenic spots in the park.

The Cherokee Indians who lived in the area used to call these mountains "shaconage," which means "place of the blue smoke." Today, the blue-gray "smoke" that surrounds the mountains is no longer pure. Some of it is just air pollution. Most comes from electric power centers and cars.

The pollution damages native plants and water streams. It also affects the views from the scenic overlooks. It can make the mountain colors appear less bright and beautiful.

The National Park Service suggests that visitors by car consider using public transportation from the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A trolley car takes visitors to many stops within the park.

The millions of visitors to this beautiful part of America have a special responsibility to preserve the land that many worked so hard to protect.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

Ashley Thompson reported this story with materials from the National Park Service and Learning English archives. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

range - n. a series of mountains or hills in a line

mist - n. water in the form of very small drops floating in the air or falling as rain

frontier - n. a distant area where few people live

conserve - v. to keep (something) safe or from being damaged or destroyed

benefit - n. good or helpful result or effect

roam - v. to go to different places freely without having a particular purpose or plan

habitat - n. the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows